On this date in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest serving president in U.S history, was buried at Springwood, his family home in Hyde Park, New York. Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, GA at 3:35 pm. on April 12 of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was 63.
Roosevelt, who shook off a debilitating illness which left him at age 39 totally and permanently paralyzed from the waist down, had the burden of guiding the country through two of the most cataclysmic events in its history: the Great Depression and World War II. Through it all the U.S. emerged stronger, more prosperous, and freer, than at any time in its history.
Like Lincoln, Roosevelt died within weeks of realizing the final fruits of the war he had led, with “the unbounded determination of [its] people” since its inception. Like Churchill, his contemporary (whom I have written about here), he was a complex man, whose complexities, accomplishments and contradictions have fascinated and challenged historians and biographers ever since. In all events, historians and political scientists consistently rank Roosevelt, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln as the country’s three greatest presidents.
On the centennial of FDR’s birth, George Will wrote:
“Anyone who contemplates this century without shivering probably does not understand what is going on. But Franklin Roosevelt was, an aide said, like the fairy-tale prince who did not know how to shiver. Something was missing in FDR. . . . But what FDR lacked made him great. He lacked the capacity even to imagine that things might end up badly. He had a Christian’s faith that the universe is well constituted and an American’s faith that history is a rising road. . . . Radiating an infectious zest, he did the most important thing a President can do: he gave the nation a hopeful, and hence creative, stance toward the future.”
Roosevelt almost never had a chance to fulfill his historic role. On February 15, 1933, between his first election to the presidency and his inauguration, Roosevelt gave an impromptu speech in Miami, Florida. In the crowd was Giuseppe Zangara, who fired off five shots at the president-elect. FDR was not hit, but Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, who was standing next to him, was fatally shot, and four other bystanders injured.
Winston Churchill almost met a similar fate as well, when, on December 13, 1931, while visiting New York City, he exited a cab in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and looking left, saw no traffic. He forgot that in America, unlike England, cars drive on the right. He proceeded to step in front of an oncoming car approaching from the right and was hit and dragged several yards. [Churchill later wrote: “I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry.”] He escaped with a serious scalp wound and two cracked ribs.
The great historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was fully mindful of these two events when he later observed:
“One might invite those who believe that individuals make no difference to history to tell us what would have happened to the world a decade later had the automobile killed Winston Churchill on Fifth Avenue and the bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in Miami. Fortunately, the two men survived to find each other and to save us all.”
Recently I described the German invasion of Norway, beginning with a famous speech from FDR (here). Norway was immensely grateful for both the inspiration Roosevelt gave to resistance fighters in Norway with his remarks, and for the hospitality the Roosevelt family extended to Crown Princess Märtha (the King’s daughter-in-law) and her family. She and her children (including the current King of Norway, Harald V) initially stayed in the White House upon arriving in the country, and lived out much of the war in nearby Maryland, and where she was a frequent guest at the White House.
After the war, the Norwegian government dedicated a statue to Roosevelt, prominently displayed in Oslo harbor, adjacent to City Hall, close to Akershus Castle and other important landmarks of World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt attended the dedication.